The history of Sadie Hawkins Day may surprise you. It all started with a comic strip written by Al Capp called Li’l Abner. The strip was published regularly in newspapers around the country from 1934 through 1978.
In Capp’s story, the setting was a town called Dogpatch, which was the home of a number of “hillbilly” families. Sadie Hawkins was the daughter of Hekzebiah Hawkins, one of the town’s earliest settlers. Sadie was said to be the “homeliest gal in all them hills”.
In the comic strip’s third year, Sadie turned 35. Her father, who was an influential man in the town and able to make new laws, declared that there would be a Sadie Hawkins Day, which would be accompanied by a foot race. All of Dogpatch’s bachelors would line up and start running when Hawkins fired his gun. After giving them a head start, he would fire the gun again and Sadie would start running. The man she caught would be her husband.
The race started in the daily comic strip on November 19, 1937. By 1939, colleges and high schools across the country were celebrating Sadie Hawkins Day, usually with dances where the girls asked the boys. During that time period and for decades afterwards, boys traditionally did the “asking”.
The foot race became an annual event in Dogpatch with all of the unmarried townsfolk participating. Any woman who caught a bachelor and was able to “drag” him across the finish line before sundown had a husband. He was required to marry her by law.
Capp may have been inspired by a similar tradition involving leap year. In Great Britain and Ireland, it was a tradition that women can only propose to men during leap years since at least the 19th century. Irish folklore holds that Saint Patrick started the tradition in the 5th century. Sadie Hawkins Day is sometimes held on February 29th presumably as a combination of the old and new traditions.
Capp could have also been inspired by the story of Atalanta, a mythological Greek huntress who was unwilling to marry. She eventually agreed to marry whoever could catch her in a foot race.
The Farmer’s Almanac lists the date of Sadie Hawkins day as falling on the first Saturday of every November, close to the date that the story first appeared in newspapers around the country. Since times have changed, the event is not quite as popular as it once was. But many people still celebrate Sadie Hawkins day in some way every year.